Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It Comes From Where?!

There are all kinds of minhagim and practices, both personal and communal, whose origins are lost back in the mists of time. They've become "traditional," and no one seems to need to know any more than that.

One such custom that I've seen at virtually every type of Jewish wedding, from the most to the left to the most to the right, is the playing of the Misirlou for a circle dance for the women. And this is one custom that truly has me scratching my head. Ask the guests at these weddings where the song came from and 99 out of 100 answers are going to be "It's an old Yiddish folk tune from somewhere in Europe." Oh boy, not.

Now granted, I know that the tune happens to have Yiddish words (first written about 1940)that go with the melody but there is no way that those lyrics are going to be sung at a Jewish wedding, certainly not at a frum wedding. Never mind how I learned those lyrics, but putting it in neutral terms, they are about the unrequited love of a man for his Eastern princess, hardly the thoughts we want to be encouraging in a choson at his chasoneh. I did some searching online and found the lyrics in Yiddish published in many places. As a "public service" I'm publishing one verse. The following verse is typical of the whole song.

Miserlou mayne, meydle fun orient,
Di oygn dayne hobn mayn harts farbrent.
Mayn harts vert a kranke,in khyulem ze ikh dikh,
Tants far mir shlanke
Drey zikh geshvind gikh.

While there is a lot of back and forthing among music historians about the exact origins of the melody, most people credit the Greeks with the version most popular today. Even if they based the melody on a folk tune of the Middle East (the "miser" being pronounced "mitzer" in Greek from the word "Mitzrim" or Egyptian), they created the dance that is traditionally done to the tune. So popular is the song "out there" that it was even featured in the movie "Pulp Fiction." **

So, we have a Jewish wedding minhag of a melody and dance that is Greek referencing an Egyptian temptress. And I'd be willing to bet that some people would tell me I'm wrong, wrong, wrong because this tune came from "in der heim." And just where did those "in der heim" get it? Ah, heresy! No questioning of minhagim allowed, full stop.

**Note: there are those who believe that the melody/lyrics arrived to Ashkenazic Europe via Sefardim from the Middle East who would have been familiar with the melody there.


Kaylie said...

We were at a wedding Sunday and they did play the miserlou. Never much thought about where it came from. It's sort of always been there. Now that I've seen the lyrics I'm never going to be able to hear it without laughing. So not what you think of as frum music. But I still like the tune.

efrex said...

Finding inappropriate tunes at weddings is a long-time pastime of mine, and it's something of a relief to report that this is one of the few issues in which the non-frum world is even more tasteless than the frum veldt (How does anybody think that "YMCA" or "I Will Survive" are good wedding songs?)

For other Yiddish "pick-me-up" songs, there's always "Oyfn Pripetchek," which I've heard several times ("Children, when you grow up you will learn about the suffering and tears..." ah, how romantic!)

Other favorites:
* The Beatles' "Yesterday"
* "The Lady is a Tramp"
* "Od lo ahavti dai" (Israeli folk song, in which the boy tells the girl that he must 'run from her like from a plague' because he hasn't fully lived life yet)
* (Warning! Do not read further if you haven't eaten yet)"Thank Heaven for Little Girls" as the flower girl walked down the aisle...

I'll ignore silly songs like "Yo-Ya" since nobody really knows the lyrics anyway... :)

Steve said...

Take pity on those of us who don't speak yiddish. What do the words mean? Or is it going to get you an X rating if you print them? In that case, forget it.

Efrex I've heard worse. How about a meddley of the Beattles songs including I can't get no Satisfaction.

Anonymous said...

Steve, isn't that the Rolling Stones? Either way not really wedding music as I think about weddings.

efrex said...


Oh, that my grandfather z"l could see me trying to translate Yiddish; no guarantees, but I think I got the gist:

Miserlou mayne, meydle fun orient,
Di oygn dayne hobn mayn harts farbrent.
Mayn harts vert a kranke,in khyulem ze ikh dikh,
Tants far mir shlanke
Drey zikh geshvind gikh.

My miserlou, oriental girl
Your eyes have burned my heart
My heart is sick, in dreams I see you
Dance for me, my slender one
Whirl faster and faster

You can probably find better translations online.

I'll grant you that I've never heard any Rolling Stones songs at any wedding that I've been at, and I dearly hope that that particular number was pre-approved (I've known couples to have pretty strange tastes).

My other habit at weddings is to listen to the band during the meal, and try to catch them getting away with stuff that they would never play when people were paying attention. I still get a smile at the reaction from the bandleader when the yeshivish-looking guy in the black hat was singing along to his Rogers & Hart medley, Toto's "Africa," and "For Good" from Wicked. (*grin*) (To give him credit, he also played a very nice version of "Not While I'm Around," possibly the most beautiful melody Stephen Sondheim ever wrote).

ProfK said...

Almost a perfect translation but you're being too kind/nice for two of the words. A shlank is a snake or serpent--it may be thin but think slithering and all that brings to mind. while "drey" can be translated as turn or whirl, "geshvind" can also be translated as "undulating," again bringing a different picture to mind. Not, c"v, that I expect that any of my readers have ever seen a belly dancer (yeah, right), but that's the image the words present.

Rae said...

If this is the type of yiddish songs people had in der heim, in der heim was a lot more interesting then we are lead to believe it was. I still like the music though. Wouldn't be the first time we jews have borrowed something from somewhere else and made it our own.

Anonymous said...

I don't get out much, but I'm wondering if this is what's referred to as the Mezinka tantz? Or is that something totally different?

ProfK said...

You are right about the borrowing. Ask anyone here what country is associated with the horah and I'll even bet hard earned money that all the answers will be Israel. Not. The word hora and the circle dance were borrowed from Romania.

But it's not just the jews who do the borrowing. The Olympics are on now and provided one of those "borrowing" moments that caused confusion for a lot of Americans and Canadians. At one of the awards ceremonies both the "Commonwealth" anthem and the American anthem were played, in that order. Lots of people here who couldn't understand why they were playing My Country Tis of Thee and then the Star Spangled Banner. Only we borrowed the melody for My Country Tis of Thee from the British "God Save the Queen." You could hear some people singing the American version and some the British.

ProfK said...

The Mezinka Tantz is something else. It refers to a special dance when either the choson or kallah is the youngest in a family. The parents are seated in a circle and the family and olam dance around them celebrating that they have married off the last of their children. I've also seen this dance where the parents are given brooms to dance around with, signifying that they have "swept" the last of their children out the door. The word comes from "zokain"--referring to a child of the "elder" years.

If you're not sure which tune is the miserlou go to
No singing but you should recognize the tune.

Anonymous said...

In public school it was drummed into my head that the song we call "My Country Tis of Thee" is actually titled "America", and yes, the tune was borrowed from the British.

Lion of Zion said...

"Wouldn't be the first time we jews have borrowed something from somewhere else and made it our own."

such cross-cultural transmision into yiddish literature, song and drama goes has a tradition dating back to the middle ages. christian references were generally removed, and sometimes the material was judaized. great discussion of this in my favorite volume of zinberg's "history of jewish literature" (vol. 7). see for example on the king arthur:
(unfortunately only paritally avaiable online)

Allen said...

It's interesting efrex about the Oifen Pripetchik song. I thought I knew all the words and have never heard the ones you quote. The ones I know are basically about a rebbi trying to teach aleph bais to his students.

Anonymous said...

That borrowing goes two ways. I was told many years ago that some rabbanim ossured listening to classical music because the melodies were stolen from the ones used by the levi'im in the Bais HaMikdosh. Anyone else ever hear this one?

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:47 - never heard it, although I have heard that the music from the Bais haMikdash is the only legitimately Jewish music.

Anyone who has seen the video of the source for the song "Yiden" will have less reverence for the "holiness" of latter day Jewish music.

efrex said...

ProfK: thanks for the corrections and compliment. Nothing too terrible in the "racier" version (anyone who's looked at Shir Hashirim has seen worse - at least if you don't just accept the ArtScroll translation); actually, if you really want some fun Jewish romantic imagery, check out some of the Ladino reportoire: I remember having a non-Jewish classmate in college translate some of the songs for me, and he looked at me in shock: "These are religious songs?!"

The song is indeed about teaching the aleph-bet, but it's extremely bittersweet at best. Here's the lyric in question, with my rough translation:
Az ir vet, kinder, elter vern,
Vet ir aleyn fershteyn,
Vifl in di oysyes lign trern,
Un vi fil geveyn

As you grow, children, ever older
You will come to know
How much tears are in the letters
And how much weeping

Tesyaa: With perhaps the exception of the tunes written by Dovid Hamelech, there's no such thing as "unadulterated" Jewish music. While I am not generally a big fan of contemporary Jewish pop-shlock, it's disingenuous to call it less "real" than Yiddish folk songs, European chazzanut/ liturgical music, klezmer, etc., all of which borrowed liberally from the surrounding musical culture. My biggest complaint is that nobody seems to be able to write a decent lyric nowadays: repeating two p'sukim over and over again in two different keys does not a song make...*grr*...

efrex said...

Oh, and regarding "My Country 'tis of Thee" being sung to "God Save the Queen:" Flanders & Swann have a wonderful take on that and several other anthems in their "Song of Patriotic Prejudice" (if you haven't heard of Flanders & Swann, fire up Google and STOP MAKING ME FEEL OLD! :) )

ProfK said...

Making you feel old Efrex? Fair play for what you just did to me. I remember being taken on a date to see them perform, somewhere in the 60s.

Lion of Zion said...

well thanks for making me feel young. i have no idea who they are

Anonymous said...

OK, this is coming from left field, but your post struck a note with me. Note, ha ha.
I am a lapsed Episcopalian. As a child my favorite hymn began "Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God". Great song, good to sing. Now as an adult I work in a Jewish mortuary. One day I was singing that song softly, not even thinking about it, and one of the men here was offended. It turned out that the melody was the same as "Deutschland uber Alles"! I can understand his unhappiness. And one more strike against the Nazis - they ruined my favorite song!
No disrespect intended. I find your blog interesting and thought provoking.

efrex said...

(I'll take "useless musical theater trivia" for $200, Alex)...

Actually, "Deutschland Uber Alles" (in the words of Flanders & Swann: what a great anthem: "German German overalls!") is possibly derived from an English folk song ("Lavender Cry"), which in turn was turned back into a British anthem by Noel Coward during the Blitz ("London Pride"), so you actually might not have been so bad off on that score. Singing an Episcopalian hymn in a Jewish mortuary, on the other hand... :)

Anonymous said...

I forwarded your link to a friend who is a doctor of Music & Music Education. Hopefully, she will know the definitive answer

Lon said...

I gave up on 'Jewish' music after a friend took my collection of favorite Jewish songs and told me what all the originals were. If I'm just listening to non-Jewish artists anyway, why not go to the source?

Talia said...

Lon, if you add up the available notes in music there just isn't an infinite number. It's unavoidable that some music is going to sound similar to other music. Re the originals, there are plenty of songs that are covered by different artists. Even though the music is technically the same music, each of the renditions has its own sound. Lots of people who like one version a lot better then another version. Not so much a matter of going to the source but of finding the version you like. If the Jewish version makes you happy then why even worry about the original? Could be you might like it and could be you might not. Doesn't make it any less valuable just because someone has done it before in some way.

observer said...

The Yiddish words are pretty close to the Arabic and Greek versions....

I've never heard this referred to as a "minhag" and it's also the first time that I've heard the name of the tune. I think that the reason it's so popular is because it's extremely danceable, but you don't have to speed, so it's accessible to more of the crowd.